Snake Handling on the Herpetofauna Team (by Paul Kriedemann, intern)
27 July 2017
This is not a “how-to” guide. If you are reading this because you want to handle snakes and you have no idea how, please seek out professional training because it can be an extremely dangerous activity. If you try handling snakes without the proper education and training, you can die! If you misidentify a snake, you can die! If you try the techniques described in this report and they don’t work, you can die! Some of these beautiful and intriguing creatures have evolved potent concoctions of chemical toxins over millions of years that are in existence to kill their prey which are often mammals. You are also a mammal. Their venom will work very well on you, so please don’t handle snakes if you don’t know what you are doing.
Handling snakes is an exercise in safety. Safety. Safety. Safety. Safety. A healthy dose of fear is always good. It is better to be slightly scared and careful than to be bold, reckless and dead! So, rule number one is to be careful and focused at all times. All it takes is one little lapse in concentration and this goes from a thrilling and intimate experience with a fascinating and alluring creature to a nightmare in an instant!
Our lesson was given to us by the Herpetofauna Team coordinator, Dylan Singer, in a controlled environment and one of the controls was to use a non-venomous snake, in this case a beautiful Amazonian tree boa (Corallus hortulanus). This species has a huge variety of colour morphs, commonly ranging from pearl grey to olive green, as well as brick red and bright yellow. Ours was light brown with dark brown saddles and almost pinkish highlights. It is a truly beautiful thing! Incidentally, we were given a second lesson a few days later, this time with a Rainbow boa (Epicrates cenchria) which is also not venomous.
Rule number two: The snake's safety is as important as our own. Snakes are so much more than the cold-blooded mindless killers they are often portrayed to be and fill vital niches in ecosystems all around the world. Although Amazon tree boas can be quite common in their prefered habitat, every individual should be treated with respect. This species has very delicate teeth, and the reality this individual was probably in more danger than we were because we can harm its teeth if it were to bite one of us and we reacted by pulling away from the bite, so we were expected to treat it as a venomous snake for this reason and as an exercise in caution.
Most snakes have a striking distance of about a third of their body length but arboreal snakes like Amazonian tree boas have more reach because their bodies are equipped to reach long distances between branches in the trees and need to be given more space, so rule number three is to keep a safe distance from the snake once it has been let out of the bag or one has been found in the wild. A misplaced foot or knee can very quickly be the target of a strike. An adult tree boa is approximately 150cm long and some individuals can be considerably longer and their length can often be deceptive because of their slenderness and propensity to remain very tightly coiled on branches. This individual was still a juvenile and only about 100cm long, so we were advised to keep all parts of our bodies at least 50cm away from its head at all times.
Rule number four is to wear the right shoes or boots, i.e. ones that cover the whole foot and ankle. No flip flops or sandals or bare feet were allowed, so for most of us here in the jungle that meant donning our trusty gumboots. Even though Corallus hortulanus is not venomous, a bite on the toe can be very painful as it has long sharp teeth, and remember we also do not want to harm the snake itself by provoking a bite that may injure its teeth. The closed shoes were there to protect us from the snake and, as importantly, to protect the snake from our reaction to being bitten.
The tools of the trade include a snake or reptile bag, a snake hook and a pin stick. The bag is used to safely store the snake while it is not being handled. The snake hook is used to manipulate and move the snake while maintaining a safe distance from it and the pin stick is used to temporarily pin the head to the ground immobilising it and making it safer to get a proper hold of the head with the hand.
Getting the snake out the bag was the first thing to be done and Dylan was the man for this job. He did it by securing the snake at the bottom of the bag by laying the bag on the ground and using the horizontally placed pin stick as a barrier. He then untied the knot at the top of the bag and released the snake onto the ground. Once the snake was safely out the bag and on the ground and we were all a safe distance away, it was time for our first exercise! Our task was to use the snake hook to move the snake from where it was to about 5 meters away. This is done by maneuvering the hook under the snake's head until about a third of its body length has slithered over the hook, at which point it can be picked up off the ground and moved. If its head is hidden under its coils, which is often what a snake might do to protect itself, it is also possible to slide the hook under one of the snake's coils to try and pull it out and open it up a bit so that it can be correctly positioned on the hook and then moved. After a quick demonstration from Dylan, it was the turn of the first student. Nick Richards, who arrived here in the Amazon well prepared with his own snake hook, was the first one to volunteer! And he made it look easy! And so did the next couple of people actually. But for whatever reason, our constricting friend took an instant dislike to me and it took me about fifteen minutes to complete the exercise that took everyone else less than a minute! The first obstacle the snake presented me with was to sneak into the thick little tuft of grass where we had to move it to from the original location where it dug itself in and then clung onto the grass with its coils! It was a challenging struggle for me to get it out. My main concern was controlling how much force I could use. The last thing I wanted, was to come here to the jungle and injure one of the creatures I am here to try and protect, so it became a battle of subtle and gentle maneuverings with the snake hook that just seemed to result in failure over and over again. But thanks to Dylan’s wisdom and guidance, I was finally able to coax it out the grass and then once I finally had it on the snake hook, it decided to tightly coil itself up and stay there, as if it were asleep. It’s a tree snake, so its natural behaviour is to grab onto branches (or in this case, a snake hook) and hold on tightly if it’s being threatened and despite its small size, it is a strong little demon! The solution in this situation is to try and pry open the powerful coils with another stick, so I picked up the pin stick and the next battle of wills commenced. It was once again a tight rope walk between using enough force to uncoil it and push it down the hook and not too much so that I hurt it. It took many attempts before it worked. A tourist from the lodge, who had noticed the action earlier and had been watching our lesson from a distance, even got bored and wandered off while I gently struggled. But my human brain and persistence payed off eventually and I finally came out on top. And finally it was time for the highlight of the lesson...pinning the snake and getting hold if its head with our bare hands and have it coil around our wrists.
So this is where it got really interesting. This is the part where we put the “hand” back into word "handling", that is to say the part where we get to actually take hold of the snake with our bare hands and pick it up and handle it in the truest sense of the word. For this we would need the pin stick and the idea is to pin the snake's head to the ground and create a moment where it is safe to grab hold of the head with our fingers and pick it up off the ground. The aim of course is to be firm but gentle. So, the business end of the pin stick is the end with a V-shaped fork. The fork is designed to be placed just behind the head in order to temporarily immobilise it on the ground. The next thing to do is to place the forefinger on the top of the snake's head and gently press it to the ground. Once it is secure you can release the pin stick. Then we bring the thumb and middle finger to the back of the snake's jaws and hold the head with these three fingers. It’s trickier than it sounds. The purpose of holding the head like this is to prevent the snake from being able to slither around and bite your hand. When my turn came, I was rightly terrified! Even though our subject - the beautiful tree boa - was non-venomous, the entire exercise was done pretending it was a deadly animal so when the time arrived to place my hands on it, in the back of my mind, I was playing with my very life! (Note, some of the images below are actually of the Rainbow boa that we handled later)
The exercise went off very smoothly for me (this time) and for the other volunteers too, after which the snake was returned to the safety of the snake bag. It was later released back into its natural habitat and the thrill and satisfaction of getting it right and having the chance to handle such a beautiful creature was a moment I will remember for the rest of my life. Thanks Dylan! And thank you snake! That was fun, but I still won’t be picking up any random snakes I come across in the wild just yet though. I don’t want to die!